Sir Horace Plunket and the Co-Operatibe Movement
It was in the Autumn of 1889, that the Honourable Alexis Roche, brother of Lord Fermoy, and Barney Fitzpatrick Baron of Castletown and had estates at Granston Manor, Abbeyleix and Doneraile Court, called on Sir Horace Plunkett to form a co-operative. For a year Plunkett had travelled through Ireland visiting friends and holding meetings to try and interest people in co-operation. Roche remembered the young Plunkett, just out Oxford and home to act as agent for his father (Lord Dunsany), when he started a the Dunsany Co-operative society. It was a small shop selling groceries and providing a local market for eggs and butter. The shareholders were country folk, Dunsany tenants and labourers, the steward and Horace Plunkett himself. Plunkett himself worked in the shop before they could afford a manager, weighing provisions and fumbling with paper and string to tie up the parcels for old people, until they begged him to desist and let them do it properly themselves. Back in Doneraile, Plunkett was pleading for support to launch another venture. Roche could not refuse as he was an old friend of his, Fitzpatrick proved enthusiastic, Anderson (who owned a large farm at Mount Corbett, Buttevant) was committed and a decision was reached to establish a co-operative shop on the Dunsany (an Rochdale) model, but somewhat larger. They acquired a large shop in the main street and stocked it with goods mainly supplied by the English Co-operative Wholesale Society which by this time had established a number of depots in Ireland. The manager they appointed was not suitable, because in Anderson’s words ‘quite inefficient because he did not understand the people”. Bolger notes “It is quite interesting to note that Anderson, himself more than a little Anglo-Irish described the unfortunate as a “Saxon”’. The committee of the co-op duly affiliated to the (Co-operative Union of Manchester) decided that it should sell everything from a needle to an anchor and supply all the requirements of both the gentry and the proletariat. Anderson, at this stage the Secretary, thought it was ambitious for Doneraile but the majority opinion prevailed. They started a bakery even though there was already an excellent baker in the village. Mickey the Fairy, the village baker won out and the co-op bakery project folded. The Saxon manager was replaced, but gradually the Co-operative aspect disappeared and it ultimately became a proprietary concern. It did make the local merchants sit –up and improve their shops and built a co-operative spirit in the area; which resulted in the Doneraile Agricultural Bank being formed in 1894. Anderson went on to become Plunkett personal assistant.
When the Dept of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) opened its doors in Upper Merrion Street, Dublin, on the 1 April 1900, it marked a new experiment in Irish administration and economic history. The DATI was given responsibility for developing the most important branch of the Irish economy. In August 1895 Sir Horace Plunkett, a unionist MP for South Co. Dublin and a member of a distinguished Anglo-Norman (family owned Dunsany Castle and Estate), wrote an open letter to the leading Irish newspapers, inviting all who were interested to join a committee to explore non-contentious measures that would promote economic welfare in Ireland. The Recess Committee, as it was known as, included twenty three men, consisting of unionist, and nationalist politicians, landlords, clergymen, prominent businessmen, and senior lawyers. Plunkett was the chairman; the secretary was T.P. Gill a journalist and former Home Rule MP. Only co-operative people from both sides of fault-lines in Irish life – unionism and nationalism – Protestantism and Catholicism participated during its formative years. Irrespective of his political motives, Plunkett was correct in assuming that all major groupings in Ireland were concerned at the condition of agriculture. The volume of agricultural output reached its post-Famine peak in the late 1850s; by the late 1890s, was 20 per cent below that level. Increasing competition came also from South America, Australia and New Zealand resulting in falling prices in all of Europe. Although frozen mutton and beef was inferior to fresh meat produced by Irish and British farmers, many families switched over because it was cheaper. Hard-tack American bacon, which was salty, of low quality but cheap, found a ready market among poorer Irish families. Dairy farmers faced two problems – competition from ‘butterine’ (or margarine as it came to be known), a cheap inferior substitute for butter, and the threat of traditional farmhouse butter from butter in creameries. Farmhouse butter was of variable quality. On small farms it might take a week to fill a barrel, and it was essential to salt the butter heavily to prevent its becoming rancid. The large number of small producers meant it was impossible to maintain uniform quality despite the inspection procedures operated in places such as the cork Butter Exchange. Creamery butter was able to command higher prices. As from 1850 onwards Holland and Denmark were taking an increasing amount of the butter market, particularly in Great Britain.
By 1900 eighty percent of Danish milk was processed in co-operative creameries. But for Ireland the co-op movement was in its infancy. By 1894 thirty three co-op creameries were established and the Irish Agricultural Organization Society (IAOS) was formed to act a central coordinating body for the co-ops. The committee in 1894/95 consisted of seven landlords, one land agent, one businessman, one Catholic bishop, and one farmer who was a large grazier and cattle breeder. Sir Horace became executive head of DATI with the title of vice-president. By 1920 some 1,115 co-ops were operating in Ireland and co-op membership had reached 150,000. During the same period turnover increased to £14.6 million, reflecting the First World War and post war inflation. Plunkett believed strongly in the role of Co-operative movement and he wrote his views in Ireland in the New Century. This was to counteract Wyndham’s views in favour of stronger state control and greater centralization. Unfortunately, by the 1906 election, when the Liberals came to power, Plunkett resigned – the differences between the different sides of the IAOS’s role versus DATI’s one, possible became too much for him as well as the Home Rule issue, which he was not in favour of.